Megan lifted the second to last of the remaining boxes into the trunk of her Mazda; three, if you counted the box of jewels. Her cell phone rang. “You’ll like it in Atlanta,” she remembered her friend Denise telling her. She would stay with Denise until she got her footing.
She punched the green call button on her phone.
“I’ve finally finished my paper on To Room 19—can I bring it to you?” That was Elyse, one of Megan’s problem students, brilliant, talented, and lazy.
Former students, Megan corrected herself silently. “You’ll have to send it to me. I’m moving to Atlanta,” she said, trying to keep the thickness of tears out of her voice.
“Can I just leave it in your inbox for next semester? I don’t mind an incomplete. I’m not graduating yet.”
“No, you’ll have to send it to me. I’m not coming back.”
“What?” A gratifying shriek from Elyse.
“Let me give you the address,” Megan said.
“Say it isn’t so!” Elyse wailed. “You’re my favourite professor. I want to take something from you every semester!”
“Well, where are you teaching in Atlanta, then? Maybe I can transfer?”
Megan laughed. She didn’t have a job in Atlanta yet. Nothing lined up, nothing in the works. An image of receiving her doctoral cap shimmered before her as she closed her eyes. The autumn scent of juniper and cedar of her first day of classes as assistant professor.
“….dark though,” Elyse’s voice brought her back mid-sentence of enthusiastic babbling. “The woman committing suicide and masking it as politely as possible, so it doesn’t hurt the husband and the children. That’s so real.”
To Room 19 had been the most controversial story she had taught in her Composition I class. Half of the students had been upset by the stealthy truth of the story. Could have happened. Here. Now. The other half were upset the other way around, claiming it couldn’t possibly be true.
“It’s so not PC. It portrays women as weak. And Doris Lessing was supposed to be a feminist?”
“Actually, the feminists claimed her, but she always claimed she wasn’t one. She wanted to be a humanist, not a feminist. She wanted to show the truth as she saw it, not according to some theory or philosophy, but according to reality.”
“Reality, shmality,” someone had muttered.
“Well, may I bring you my paper before you leave?” Elyse asked.
Megan considered waiting, but, no, that part of her life was over. For now. “I’m leaving in ten minutes,” she said.
“Oh. Then you better give me your address.”
* * * * *
All her life, people had warned her about studying English literature, which she loved. “You’ll never find a job with an English major.” It was worse when she went on to graduate school. “Come on, Megan, you’ll be teaching Composition 101 and Intro to Literature for the next 10, 20 years.”
She had in fact taught Composition and Introduction to Literature. She didn’t mind. Both lent themselves to smuggling in her favourite women writers, with the additional small triumph of getting to require the young men to read women authors, too. Easy with someone like Mary Oliver, of course, whom practically everybody embraced. Another one who declared to not be a feminist.
What did get her to abandon her academic career for the time being, was, of course, of all things, a man.
“It always about a man, isn’t it?” shrieked the collective furies of her mind.
Shawn was a colleague who had been hired two years before her, and Shawn was a hero.
Each English student took one class with Shawn. Some might have taken more, but it was painful to listen to him. It was easier by far to look at him. His face was movie star handsome with large brown eyes, long lashes, lush brown hair, an always carefully trimmed beard.
He always held is head to the side, and it wasn’t until he spoke that one could tell that there was something wrong. His vocal chords often snapped out of control, a modulated phrase or two, then a sudden dark derailing, a clang, a metallic squeak. That’s when one started noticing that half of his suit seemed oddly loose.
Shawn had wanted to be an English Professor, much as Megan had, and he had succeeded against all normal odds—and then some, in his case.
When in her third year of teaching Megan proposed a class of Women and Literature from the 20th Century to the present, Shawn had joked that he would teach Men and Literature from 3,600 B.C. to the present.
Shawn was popular. Yes, he was in a wheelchair and all doors opened for him. At faculty parties, he was surrounded by well-wishers.
At first Shawn and Megan didn’t have a lot to do with one another.
One day he published a book of poems with a university press. The English faculty organized a poetry reading for him. Each of five teachers was to take turns reading one poem after another, standing by the side of Shawn’s wheelchair.
Not many students were expected, but many came, and extra chairs had to be brought it.
By the day of the event, three teachers had canceled, however, leaving only Megan and an older professor, close to retirement, who thought perhaps it would be better for her to do the entire reading.
She did so. On a few occasion she had tears in her eyes. Shawn was openly weeping. The students gave a rousing applause.
That was when Shawn fell in love with her.
* * * * *
Shawn asked Megan out for coffee, but she declined. He frightened her with his intensity and she kept avoiding him as much as she could.
He wrote her a letter about the poetry reading. How many students had commented on what a stunning pair they made, what an amazing team.
The students had told her that as well.
One day he wheeled to her office door in his wheelchair, which blocked it so effectively that she couldn’t have escaped, even if she had gone for the absolute in soap opera and run away.
“Why are you avoiding me?” he asked.
“I’m not,” she lied. She thought of the beggar in front of the Lutheran church whose morning hello made her feel obligated and made her opt for slinking through an unpleasant alley instead.
“I’ve written you two letters, eight notes and fourteen emails. You haven’t responded,” he said.
“I haven’t had time. I have so many papers to mark.”
He looked as bitter as some of his poems. He had good reason to be full of rage at life. She conceded him that. But it scared her.
“You’re avoiding me because I’m crippled,” he said. His dark eyes flashed hatred.
Blood rushed into her nerve endings. She was trapped in truth.
“Shawn, I like you well enough. You know that.”
“Then prove it. Go out for a coffee with me. It’s just coffee.”
“Thank you, Shawn, but, no, thank you for asking. I can’t.”
“No reason, right?”
Oh, there was a reason. He was pressuring her. It alarmed her. But one couldn’t say such a thing. Well, maybe one could, but she personally could not.
She went out for coffee with him. Later he accused her, “You went out for coffee with me. You encouraged me.”
The next week he turned up everything a notch. This time he wanted to go out to dinner. She didn’t. They went to dinner. He smiled. His eyes no longer hated her.
Later he said, “You just wanted to be chased.”
And in the night she was visited by demons that taunted her. What harm does it do to go out with him? You are a good girl, aren’t you? It was to avoid her inner demons more than anything else that made her pack and leave.
In the car, driving south, then east, away from the sunset, she cried. For herself. For her students growing into a society where you could still be forced. For Shawn and his belief that the world owed him whatever he wanted.
“Just call me the girl who moved to Atlanta,” she sobbed into her steering wheel. “No, not girl, I’m a woman,” she corrected herself a moment later. “A woman who does what needs to be done.” Her demons were milder in daylight. They merely asked why she didn’t stay and fight for her space. Because she was a woman who knew that any space gained in fight, anything drenched in conflict and in pain, was not worth living in, she replied in so many thoughts. Because it was dangerous to hurt a wounded man’s feelings in this world. It was easier to move to Atlanta than to keep on saying no.
She had a lot to learn from him, she thought, as a cloudburst made her slow down and turn on the windshield wipers to full speed. How to overcome weakness. And how to use it to advantage if necessary.
Perhaps her friend Denise was right. Perhaps she would like it in Atlanta.
* * * * *
Shawn wheeled into the staff lounge where the new teacher, red-haired Karina Alkhinoff, sat reading a copy of his book of poems that he had recently given to her.
“I hear a former colleague of yours gave a legendary reading of these poems,” Caroline said, looking up.
“Yes,” Shawn said, dream lights wandering into his eyes. “I still miss her. She was a fine woman. We were a great match. Unfortunately she had to move. One of her parents was ill—her mother, I believe. If I had asked her to stay, I think she would have stayed. But it would have torn her apart inside. I couldn’t ask such a thing of her. I cared too much.”
Karina loved the velvet sincerity in Shawn’s eyes.
Beate Sigriddaughter, www.sigriddaughter.com, lives and writes in Silver City, New Mexico. Her work has received three Pushcart Prize nominations. She has also established the Glass Woman Prize to honour passionate women’s voices.